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PURPOSE AND POINT OF VIEW

Recycled Purposes

Finding the purpose of a paragraph can be tricky! Fortunately, however, authors don’t invent a new purpose for every new paragraph they write. There are some purposes that you could think of as “popular” purposes because authors use them frequently. What are these purposes?

1. To provide a description or present information.

Authors may describe people, places, events, things, or ideas, or may just give you information about those people or things. If you’re reading a paragraph that seems as though it is merely a collection of facts, then you may be reading a paragraph that was written to inform or describe. Here’s an example of a paragraph that was written to describe a person.

This black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life—with black curls tossed backward, thin, bare arms, little legs in lace-frilled drawers, and feet in low slippers—was just at that charming age when a girl is no longer a child, though the child is not yet a young woman. Escaping from her father she ran to hide her flushed face in the lace of her mother’s shawl—not paying the least attention to her severe remark—and began to laugh. She laughed, and in fragmentary sentences tried to explain about a doll which she produced from the folds of her frock.

The main topic of this paragraph is the girl; the author explains that she is not pretty, but she is full of life. So, why does the author write this paragraph? The author’s purpose in writing the paragraph is to describe the girl.

2. To contradict another point of view.

Sometimes authors write simply to prove that someone else’s point of view is incorrect. Here is a paragraph written to contradict another point of view.

Certain authors, following Varro, have maintained that the civilization of Rome died a “natural death,” the normal result of old age. It is mere fancy to suppose that nations have their birth, their maturity, and their decline under an unbreakable law like that which determines the life history of the individual. A nation may be broken up if wrongly led or attacked by a superior force, and it will suffer if its population of effective leaders is reduced. Such effects, rather than those of nature, caused the decline of Rome.

The main topic of this paragraph is the decline of Rome; the author says that it is mere fancy, or wrong, to assume that Rome died as a result of natural decay. He then goes on to list the items that he believes caused the fall of Rome. So why did the author write this paragraph? He must have written it to contradict the point of view that Rome died as the normal result of old age.

3. To make an argument.

Often, authors write to convince others to accept their points of view. They may argue for an idea, for a solution to a problem, or for a particular course of action. If you think that you are reading a paragraph that is designed to make an argument, ask yourself, “what does the author want me to believe about this topic?” If you find that you can point to a specific idea with which the author wants you to agree, you are probably reading a paragraph that was written to argue a point. Examine the paragraph below and see if you can identify the author’s argument.

There is probably one purpose, and only one, for which the use of force by a government is beneficial, and that is to diminish the total amount of force used by others in the world. It is clear, for example, that the legal prohibition of murder diminishes the total amount of violence in the world. So long as some men wish to do violence to others, there cannot be complete liberty, for either the wish to do violence must be restrained, or the victims must be left to suffer. For this reason, although individuals and societies should have the utmost freedom as regards their own lives, they ought not to have complete freedom as regards their dealings with others. To give freedom to the strong to oppress the weak is not the way to secure the greatest possible amount of freedom in the world.

The main topic of the paragraph is the use of force by governments. The author states that this force is beneficial only when it limits the total amount of force in the world, and that unless people’s freedoms are limited to some extent, then the strong will be able to oppress the weak. Why did the author write this paragraph, then? It must have been to convince readers that governments must sometimes use force to limit the freedoms of its citizens.

4. To explore or examine ideas.

Authors write some paragraphs because they simply want to discuss new ideas. They may want to point out that a particular problem does not yet have a solution or that there are multiple possible answers to a question. Here’s an example of a paragraph that was written to explore a new idea.

Stereotypes and preconceptions abound about Generation Y, often defined as the generation of individuals born on or after 1982. Some predict that this generation will be more civic-minded than its predecessors, possessing a strong sense of community. Others, however, point to the current tendency of Generation Y members to immerse themselves in technology as evidence that this generation may, in fact, be less civic-minded. Such ones argue that teenagers who never seem to remove ear buds from their ears and who prefer texting and instant messaging to face-to-face speech are less likely to develop personal ties with others and are therefore less likely to have strong connections to their local communities as they grow older. Which side is correct? The truth is that only time will tell.

What is the topic of the paragraph? The author focuses on the stereotypes about Generation Y. She explores two different points of view about the generation, and then states that right now, no one can determine which side is correct. Why did the author write this paragraph, then? She must have written it in order to explore different stereotypes regarding Generation Y.

5. To provide an explanation.

Authors don’t just make statements; they also explain why those statements are true. Often, they’ll use entire paragraphs to explain a particular point of view, event, or thing. Check out the paragraph below, which provides an explanation for a particular phenomenon. As you read, see if you can identify what the author is explaining.

He was so badly dressed that even a man accustomed to shabbiness would have been ashamed to be seen in the street in such rags. In that quarter of the town, however, scarcely any shortcoming in dress would have created surprise. Owing to the proximity of the market, the number of establishments of bad character, the abundance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however bizarre, would have caused surprise.

The topic of the paragraph is the shabbiness of the man’s clothes, and of the town surrounding the man. What the author says about this topic is that no one was surprised by the shabbiness of the man’s clothing because everyone in the area was accustomed to seeing people who were badly dressed. Why did the author write this paragraph, then? He must have written it in order to explain why no one was surprised by the shabbiness of the man’s clothing.

Of course, not all paragraphs will fit into one of these five categories, and some paragraphs may fit into more than one category. However, if you are having trouble identifying the purpose of a paragraph, you may find it helpful to consider whether you can place the paragraph under one of these headings.

Now try a few paragraphs on your own. Answer the questions that follow each paragraph, and look for common purposes.

For many years various European collections of Egyptian antiquities have contained a certain series of objects which gave archaeologists great difficulty. There were vases of a peculiar form and color, greenish plates of slate, many of them in curious animal forms, and other similar things. It was known, positively, that these objects had been found in Egypt, but it was impossible to assign them a place in the known periods of Egyptian art. The puzzle was increased in difficulty by certain plates of slate with hunting and battle scenes and other representations in relief in a style so strange that many investigators considered them products of the art of Western Asia.

1. What is the main topic of the paragraph?

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2. What does the author say about that topic?

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3. Why does the author write about that topic?

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The main topic of this paragraph is a collection of Egyptian antiquities. What the author says is that the collection contained peculiar items and that it was impossible to determine the period in which they had been created. Why did the author write this paragraph? The author just provides information about the puzzle surrounding the collection, so his purpose must have been to describe the puzzle surrounding the antiquities.

Examine the paragraph below, and answer the questions that follow.

It was at the post office that, several years ago, I saw Ethan Frome for the first time, and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two. I had this from Harmon Gow, who had driven the stage from Bettsbridge to Starkfield in pre-trolley days and knew the chronicle of all the families on his line.

1. What is the main topic of the paragraph?

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2. What does the author say about that topic?

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3. Why does the author write about that topic?

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The topic of the paragraph is Ethan Frome. What the author says is that Ethan was the most striking figure in town. She then proceeds to give details about how Ethan was striking. Why did the author write the paragraph? The purpose of this paragraph must be to explain why Ethan Frome was striking.